How much less are screenwriters getting paid compared to what they used to? 

Janet Nguyen Jun 8, 2023
Writers hold signs while picketing in front of Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, California back in May. If the strike lasts for three months, it could cost California's economy $3 billion, based on estimates from the Writers Guild of America. Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

How much less are screenwriters getting paid compared to what they used to? 

Janet Nguyen Jun 8, 2023
Writers hold signs while picketing in front of Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, California back in May. If the strike lasts for three months, it could cost California's economy $3 billion, based on estimates from the Writers Guild of America. Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

In this golden age of streaming, not everyone is benefiting equally, according to the Writers Guild of America. The union, which represents thousands of screenwriters across film, television and other platforms, went on strike in early May.

While the industry is very competitive, it used to be a viable career where you could support yourself if you secured a job — even if you weren’t a big-name showrunner, explained Kate Fortmueller, an associate professor of film and media at Georgia State University.

“Streaming has really changed the game,” she said. 

Median weekly writer-producer pay has declined 23% over the past decade, after adjusting for inflation, according to the WGA. About a decade ago, one-third of all TV series writers were paid the minimum rate. Now, nearly half of TV writers are paid the minimum. 

Despite declining pay for staffers, CEO compensation remains high. Variety crunched the numbers for their compensation in 2022, finding that Disney CEO Bob Iger received $15 million, Netflix co-CEOs Ted Sarandos and Reed Hastings received more than $50 million each and Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav received $39 million.

The WGA’s demands include higher compensation and residuals, a minimum number of staff employed in writers’ rooms, increased pension contributions, and regulation over the use of artificial intelligence, among other demands. 

Writers have expressed concerns about the use of mini rooms, in which a few writers are hired before production to write scripts for minimum pay, tying them up for a series that might not get greenlit (sometimes mini rooms are also used if a show gets renewed). On top of lower pay, these writers often don’t get the opportunity to take part in the production process, hurting the ability to build their resumes, explained Variety. 

Guild members say that writing for TV has become more precarious, comparing it to the gig economy because of the lack of stability. Amid the boom in streaming, writers have become employed for shorter durations and have been receiving smaller residual checks.

“A lot of young people that want to break in as writers are frightened because it used to be you could have a regular, middle-class living working as a writer,” said Glenn Farrington, a TV writer who’s been part of the guild for more than a decade.

“I’m just asking for enough to be able to survive”

Streaming has encouraged shorter television seasons, which means less work for writers. Farrington said that when he started out writing scripts for TV, shows had around 22 to 26 episodes a season. Now, he’s noticed, these shows range between seven and 13 episodes. 

“That’s not even more than a few months of work,” he said. “If you don’t have a long season, you only have X amount of money coming in.”

Farrington said if a new, working writer is lucky, they might work on one season of a show a year, although they might get asked back if that show gets picked up, allowing them to work on two seasons that year. Established writers usually work on two seasons a year in total — either for the same show or two separate shows. 

Some writers also get script fees, but only if they’re above staff writer level, Farrington explained. As part of a tentative agreement between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, staff writers will be able to receive script fees on top of the weekly fees they get paid.

Writers have also raised issues with shrinking residuals. For network shows, writers get checks when their work is re-broadcasted on television, while streaming residuals are paid annually, and generally based on the exhibition year, the length of the program and the amount of subscribers. 

For network TV shows Farrington has worked on, the first residual check is about half of his script fee. Each subsequent residual check he gets is half of the previous amount. 

“That’s what allowed you to be able to make it through the year. Because then if you balance that out over time, you can pay mortgages, you can pay rent, or you can pay all the utilities, you can pay food, you can pay gas,” he said. 

Farrington said he co-wrote an episode for a 1-hour TV series, which came with an overall script fee of about $41,000. Because he was a co-writer, he earned half, netting him about $20,500. That means his first residual was more than $10,000.

Now compare this with streaming. Streaming platforms with 20 million or more subscribers have the same script fee rates as primetime network shows if their budgets are above a certain amount, while platforms with fewer than 20 million subscribers have rates similar to basic cable and the CW network, per the WGA. But writers say the residuals are lower.

Farrington said the highest residual check he’s received for a network show that went to a streaming service was worth $1,700, with the typical amount ranging between $400 to $600. 

“You just want to be fairly compensated. I’m not asking for, God knows, millions and millions and millions of dollars. I’m not asking for that,” Farrington said. “I’m just asking for enough to be able to survive and have a stable life and raise a family. And I think that’s what anybody wants out of a job.”

Farrington will have to make his savings last throughout the duration of the strike. Right now, he and his wife are focused on helping financially support their daughter through college, and have cut back on discretionary spending. 

Smaller paychecks and less experience 

Guild members say that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for writers to advance in the field. 

Javier Grillo-Marxuach — a TV screenwriter and producer who has worked on many shows, including the first two seasons of “Lost” and “The Witcher” — said that some writers not only write scripts, but produce shows for network television.

“You are basically going up the ladder that eventually leads to being a showrunner,” he said. 

But when it comes to the streaming system, he said you might write the scripts and then never get the opportunity to produce. 

“What they’ve done is that they’ve unbundled the concept of writer as producer,” Grillo-Marxuach explained. 

So more writers are receiving smaller paychecks because their producer fee has been nixed, and they’re missing out on opportunities to hone their craft. 

To illustrate the importance of cultivating writers’ careers, Grillo-Marxuach gave a business analogy: 

“A showrunner is the CEO of a startup corporation with a $100 million budget and 300 employees,” he said. “You don’t hand that responsibility to somebody who’s never done the job before. I’ve seen them do it. And it’s a disaster. The business needs to promote its own upper management from within.” 

The guild’s strategies appear to be working

Production on various TV series and movies has been shut down, including late night talk shows, the fifth season of “Stranger Things,” and Marvel’s upcoming “Thunderbolts.” Some productions may never return. 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to executives who say that the guild’s strategies during the strike thus far have been “effective.” 

The WGA calculated that its proposals will cost studios $429 million a year, which the guild says is less than the costs incurred by an ongoing strike, which could last months. The last WGA strike, between 2007 and 2008, lasted 100 days and cost California’s economy an estimated $2.1 billion. The guild said the current strike is costing California’s economy $30 million a day. If it lasts the same amount of time as the previous strike, that’s an economic loss of $3 billion.

As to what will happen to the industry if writers’ demands aren’t met? “You’re gonna wind up with an art form that is going to be much impoverished artistically, that’s only going to make money for the corporations, that’s not going to nurture artists coming up,” Grillo-Marxuach said. “You’re going to see a lot fewer writers being able to make a living out of this.”

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